In breaking news on May 19, Governor Steve Bullock announced the Treasure State is steamrolling toward Phase II of re-opening. On June 1, bars, restaurants, breweries, fitness facilities and others can increase customer capacity to 75%. Places of worship and bowling alleys can also welcome more guests.  Out-of-state visitors will no longer have to quarantine for 14 days before enjoying Montana. These shifts are unfolding rapidly, and businesses are readying themselves. 

On the endless list of considerations for employers, a central question remains. Will employees come back to work? For some out-of-work employees, federal and state unemployment benefits combined make up a greater sum than the employee made previously at their job. More than the financial bottom line for furloughed staff members is another conundrum: what if I don’t feel safe returning to work? The gray area engulfing both employees and employers during these phases of re-opening is enormous. 

In the past weeks, as the Better Business Bureau has connected with thousands – yes thousands – of businesses. We have heard loud and clear that businesses are worried about the bottom line. Funding can’t come through fast enough. We heard worries about whether customers will show up if businesses re-open. And we heard from owners and managers worrying about whether their staff will come back. Though employees technically must return to work when summoned (and hence stop receiving unemployment payments), several good managers have opted for the carrot instead of the stick when it comes to retention in a pandemic. 

Recently Mike Nelson, General Manager of the Northern Hotel in Billings, spoke to a group of Montana businesspeople gathered (remotely) to talk about engagement among employees during COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, Nelson says he has had to lay off many of his staff members. That is not an unusual story in today’s landscape. But what came next was. 

Nelson enlisted the help of remaining hotel staffers to cook takeout meals for any of the staff – on payroll or furloughed – who needed it. The free, hearty meals were offered three times per week. 

For the staff who remained at the hotel, many suddenly found themselves without childcare. Instead of sending them home to file for unemployment, Nelson allowed them to bring their children with them to work. The happy sounds of children at the office brought joy during stressful times and added a layer of perspective to the situation. 

Next, Nelson leveraged the shutdown to catch up on overdue projects and keep staff at work. To knock out the hotel’s honey-do list, Nelson said he “rotated folks through the roster,” meaning accountants were spackling walls and maintenance engineers were cleaning artwork, among other nontraditional duties. 

Nelson said he was also zealous about communicating with his staff, whether they remained on the skeleton crew at the hotel or furloughed at home. He gave regular company updates, offering as transparent as possible. 

The Northern Hotel offers one of hundreds of stories of great management under pressure. At Better Business Bureau, we advise businesses to guide and reassure employees by keeping them up to date to prevent unnecessary panic or undue stress. As a business owner, it is important to arm yourself with the most current information and share it with your workforce to show leadership and calm fears. And then, be human. Be kind to your staff. Because as owners across Montana prepare to re-open or welcome more customers, having the staff to do so is vital.  

Take a page from Nelson, and so many other great business owners’ playbooks. Show empathy for employees, be transparent about the state of your business, and take proper precautions before re-opening. Heeding that advice means you will not only be doing the right thing, but you’ll be building the kind of loyalty it takes to survive a pandemic. It’s the kind of loyalty that brings good people back to work when they’re called. 

Hannah Stiff is the State Director for the Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific. She is responsible for helping Montana’s more than 1,200 BBB Accredited Businesses and keeping consumers safe. Find out more at bbb.org. She is also a former Belgrade News reporter.